Germany 1 Northern Ireland 0
On one hot sticky summer's eve in Paris, when toil and perspiration were more in evidence than local chic, Northern Ireland ran themselves to a near standstill and yet were still sweating long after referee Clément Turpin blew the final whistle on a 1-0 defeat by Germany.
But all the angst was worth it. Michael O’Neill’s honest team are through to 16 on three points.
Goal difference of zero meant that Turkey’s 2-0 win over the Czech Republic left them as one of the four best third placed teams. That was due mainly to an inspired display from Irish goalkeeper Michael McGovern. McGovern made a fistful of exceptional saves.
On a day when Germany found their rhythm, the world champions were foiled repeatedly by a man who plays for Hamilton Academical.
McGovern produced an individual performance that he will be interviewed about 30 years from now. But for him – and the woodwork – this would have been a thrashing.
“No team is flawless,” O’Neill said of Germany pre-match, but for a 40-minute period in the first half the Germans looked eager to disprove that.
Rory McIlroy was in attendance in a George Best t-shirt and Mesut Ozil was gliding around the turf like the great Belfast man.
O'Neill's team of four Premier League regulars were running to stand still as Ozil and his colleagues weaved patterns. The pressure was relentless. Yet only once, when Mario Gomez scored scruffily on 30 minutes, was McGovern beaten. It was hard to fathom.
It was a white-shirted procession towards his goal. The men in green actually had a bright first five minutes and spent time in the German half. But after that it was a case of when Germany would score, not if.
Faced with the prospect of lines of Irish jerseys in the final third, Joachim Low appeared to have told his two ball-playing centre-halves, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, to spread the ball to the flanks, or to go over the top of central defence marshalled by 36-year-old Gareth McAuley.
This requires accuracy and unfortunately for O’Neill’s team, the German passing was just that.
As early as the eighth minute a sublime touch from Ozil had Thomas Muller scampering into the Irish area. The Bayern Munich striker looked set to score but McGovern stood up as long as he could and blocked. It was a fine save more than a bad miss.
But that story would not, could not, continue. Three minutes later a 40-yard chip from Boateng found Ozil; again McGovern blocked. Sixty seconds later Mario Gotze had a shot thwarted by a combination of McGovern and Jonny Evans. If it sounds breathless, it was. Jamie Ward down the right tried to break out – and had a shot 26 minutes in.
But the tide came again. On 27 minutes a diving header from Muller smacked off a post and then finally, on the half-hour, Muller and Gomez exchanged passes on the edge of the box. There was a scramble of Irish defenders but the ball ran to Gomez who struck it in – off McAuley.
On the bench O’Neill displayed irritation – a McGovern clearance had not been long enough it seemed – but his players were at full pelt just to keep in touch.
Before half-time the woodwork would be hit again - again by Muller – and then Gomez wasted a chance, blaming the pitch for his fluffed shot. As Paris St-Germain's groundsman, Jonathan Calderwood, comes from near Ballymena, Gomez could have a point.
The second half resumed with the theme unchanged. McGovern made a great save from Gomez.
Tried his luck
then tried his luck from distance, but McGovern had the measure of that too.
Matters slowed after that in the draining humidity and there was break from Irish captain Steven Davis.
Lafferty came on as well but not even non-stop chasing – the “intensity of spirit” O’Neill speaks of – could interrupt Germany.
As late as the 82nd minute McGovern was springing to his left to tip away a Gomez header.
After the game the Irish were off to watch Turkey as they faced the Czech Republic. It made for good viewing.